POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – In addition to fighting fires, Polk County Fire Rescue leadership is also trying to fight cancer by making it harder for firefighters to be exposed at the fire station.
“We’ve evolved a long way and what we’ve found is some of the stuff that we used to take as routine and every day was something that was actually potentially hurting us,” said Polk Fire Rescue Chief Robert Weech.
The agency opened its new Kathleen fire station north of Lakeland in October, the first of 17 new $4 million fire stations planned over the next five years.
Each new station will follow the same three-zoned prototype.
“Red” zones are where the firefighters come in after going on a call. Their gear could be contaminated with carcinogens, a cancer-causing substance.
“What we want to eliminate is that serial exposure, that exposure time and time again of taking that gear off, putting it on, and potentially getting re-exposed,” said Chief Weech.
The gear is then put directly into large, heavy-duty washing machines called “extractors.”
“It’s designed to pull those contaminants, those cancer-causing agents out of the gear and render it ready to go on the next call,” said Weech.
The cleaning area is the “yellow” zone.
The “green” zone is the living and administrative areas, where firefighters sleep, eat, work out, and do office work and training.
Contaminated gear is not allowed in those areas.
The weight room has been moved away from exhaust fumes emitted from the firetrucks.
Even the airflow was part of the engineering of the building.
“The building was built with a positive pressure ventilation system so that when we open up these doors, the air from the green side of the station will rush into the red side and not the other way around,” said Chief Weech in a hallway between the “red” and “green” zones.
Evolving science and a Florida law passed in 2019 have made a connection between fighting fire and cancer.
The law requires local governments to cover treatment for certain cancers for firefighters who qualify.
Two firefighters have qualified so far with Polk County Fire Rescue, according to Chief Weech.
“There is a direct link, the science has proven that, we do know that,” he said.
The chief said his agency is beginning to track how cancer is impacting current and retired firefighters.
While most of the 17 new fire stations will be replacing existing ones, it still leaves many of the 45 fire stations existing in the old model.
“When the emergency’s over, we deserve, they deserve, for us to do the right things to protect them in all cases,” he said.
Chief Weech said they are working to put forth some of the new protocols in those older, smaller stations.
The union representing Polk County firefighters has raised concerns about overworked and understaffed fire stations.
“We had some staffing shortages. We are in a staffing crisis as it is,” said Vernon Austin, the grievance chairman for Polk County Professional Firefighters – IAFF Local 3531.
Austin expressed concern that while the county addressed the population growth by building fire stations, it did not adequately add firefighters.
Chief Weech said he hopes these safety improvements will help with recruitment.
“What any talent has in mind is ‘are they gonna look after me and am I gonna be treated fairly?’ This is a big message to anybody who’s listening is Polk County is willing, ready, and able to do the right thing,” he said.
Firefighters at the new Kathleen fire station are grateful.
“Me personally it means a lot. Throughout the department, it means everything,” said Tom Konze, an engineer and paramedic. “Something so minor as a washing machine seems minor to most people but to us, it’s a big thing.”